The Land of Opportunity
(A Biography of Domenico Perrotta)
The story begins in a small town of 5,700
on September 1, 1937
in Bonefro, Italy.
Five children’s names being called for dinner,
I run so I can eat,
my parents make ends meet.
I saw my mama’s tummy grow,
my little brother, Michele, came into this world for 16 short months,
and left it in a little white coffin.
I went to church on Sundays
and bowed my head and prayed
for God to help my parents get through the hard days.
My cousin playing catch in the fields,
with balls left behind from the war
until the balls blew up, and then they played no more.
A rumbling stomach, torn clothes –
11 years old and no longer in school, working
and willingly putting every lira into mama’s hand.
Early mornings go by slowly
when you are out in fields herding sheep for 100 lire,
but it’s survival.
My friend, Georgio, pink, curly-tailed and four-legged,
a gift from my employers;
little did he know the reason I fed him the most.
Yawning in night school at age 15,
gaining my fifth-grade diploma,
exhausted but persevering on.
Watching people desert my town,
it is 1955 and my eldest brother leaves
to the land of opportunity.
Awoken in the middle of the night from a dream of Canada,
I have a job, washing windows –
there are jobs in Canada, not like here.
Letters, sent from across the world-
“devi venire in Canada.”
20 years old, making the biggest decision of my life,
I am leaving everything I know,
for a better life, a new country, Canada.
Embarking on a boat,
with one-third of a shared trunk,
500 lire, a pair of scissors and hope.
11 of my first Canadian dollars made
cutting children’s hair while at sea,
the smell of salt and opportunity.
Stuck to the roof of my mouth
was the strange, sweet Canadian bread,
but it was better than nothing.
Pier 21, we have arrived –
blah blah someone says to me; English,
not understanding, I respond with my hands.
Last Call! –
I get off the train.
An embrace from Tony,
it’s been 3 years
and I see a new light in my brother’s eyes.
I pinch myself
no it is not a dream this time;
I am washing windows and floors in Canada.
11 people in a bungalow
and sharing a bed with two other men
leads to many restless nights.
The first piece of Canadian literature I read . . .
My name is _____.
I live in Canada.
I am ___ years old.
The English-speaking neighbour
calls out to me, “Dom”
I, Domenico, respond, “You dom yourself!”
“If you can give them better go ahead,”
Tony says to the town in response
to a complaint of an overcrowded house.
I now understand the meaning
of a white Christmas;
a coat does not keep out the cold.
Whatever you do,
if you don’t believe in yourself,
you don’t believe in anything.
Against fear of failure,
in 1959 I start my own business;
Domenic’s Men’s Hairstyling.
Pen, paper and stamps
used to update my parents on Canada,
only writing the good things of course.
Smiling in the street about my first car,
until I was questioned by a police officer;
Italian immigrants don’t drive Mercury Monarchs.
My heart brought back to Italy
while playing bocce, scopa
and briscola with my friends.
Bonjour, olà, hola –
multiculturalism teaches me,
here where there is milk and honey.
“It’s only been 13 months Mama,
stay longer in Canada” I plead,
“your father wants to go home,” she replies.
My Abruzzese landlord
wakes me up in the morning,
she has become like a mother to me.
una paesana quickly turns into
the love of my life.
It is 1967,
and wedding bells are ringing,
I am a lucky man.
I move in with the in-laws,
a three-story house,
with three generations in it- how fitting!
January 1, 1968 at Italian Gardens,
3-2-1… Happy New Year –
dancing the tango with my new wife.
365 days later,
my New Year begins with a shrieking cry;
my firstborn, Nino, enters this world.
Red grapes turned
into homemade vino,
a tradition continued in Canada.
Countless Saturday nights
spent at the Milton Italian Club
dancing to the beat.
Now a father of two –
I stare into my baby girl’s eyes,
oh how I love you Donatina.
A sold sign on the lawn of my shop,
I take on a new identity –
Domenic the salesman.
Fresh pomodori and fagiolini
from the garden, they taste better
when you grow them yourself.
In 1974, much like my life,
my family house was
built from the ground up.
I remember the sacrifice of our saviour
at the Good Friday Procession
on Grace and College Street.
D.S. Motors –
the name of my second business,
Canada really is the land of opportunity.
Bologna and Chef Boyardee
my kids ask for,
we are Italian, don’t they know?
The brisk fall air
means tomato-stained hands
and 120 mason jars filled.
Time goes fast, I blink
and my kids are in University,
this was all worth it.
A tragic phone call from Italy-
at 58, my favourite sister became an angel
and I never got to say goodbye.
My faith remains strong,
I pray, still in Italian,
even though I know the words in English.
My children now –
a chiropractor and a teacher,
and I owe it all to this country.
Walking my daughter down the aisle,
teary-eyed, I kiss her cheek and know
I made the right choice immigrating here.
A quick glance at my passport,
I wish I could tell the young man
staring back at me that it will all be okay.
Nonno, my new name;
in 1999, I show off my new
granddaughter, Daniella, to everyone.
My return to Pier 21 after 50 years
with my children and grandchildren,
proudly answering all the tour guide’s questions.
a distant term until it becomes too familiar,
I am diagnosed, but I am a survivor.
after 81 years of work,
I finally rest.
Wealth is not in your bank account,
it is in your memories, it is love,
it is my five grandchildren.
Today, if it’s the end –
I’d be the happiest man in the world
everything I’ve done, I’ve done it my way.